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E-mails to Congress Add Up, But to What?

The percentage of citizens contacting their members of Congress has more than doubled, but both groups view each other with 'mutual skepticism.' What should be done?
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If you're like most Web-oriented people, chances are you've come across an invitation to "contact your member of Congress" about some issue or other. You click through, and before you know it, you've added your name and participated in the great democratic process. As if nothing could be easier.

Add it up, and Congress is now receiving far more input than ever before. According to a new report by the Congressional Management Foundation, almost half (44 percent) of Americans say they've contacted a U.S. senator or representative over the last five years - a remarkable number, considering that in 2004, the American National Election Studies found that only 18 percent of Americans had expressed their views.

"People are not tuning out, they are tuning in," said Beverly Bell, executive director of the CMF. "There is a lot more public participation in the democratic process."

The reason appears pretty simple. As the report and those involved with it are quick to note, the Internet has made everything easier, from learning about the issues to effortlessly registering opinions about them.

"There is a new medium with which we can communicate with our representatives," said Dino Christenson, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Ohio State University who consulted extensively with the CMF in producing the report. "And it is quite possibly the medium that requires the very least amount of work on our part."

"And this makes a lot of sense given what we know about political participation," Christenson added. "People would be fine giving their opinion, but they're unlikely to do so given the amount of work it takes and the belief that doing so won't result in a change. But if you get an online petition, and it's as simple as filling in your name and clicking submit, then you're off to go."

And, mostly, it is opinions (not complaints) that citizens are generously sharing. Of those surveyed, 91 percent said the reason they contacted their member was "to voice my opinion on an issue before Congress." Only 13 percent were interested the more traditional constituent service and said that they wanted "to get help with a problem."

So how many e-mails does this add up to? According an earlier CMF report, Congress received 200 million communications in 2004 (about 90 percent through the Internet), as compared with 50 million in 1995. That number is probably even higher today.

But is that too much? Congressional staffs, after all, are no bigger than they were three decades ago, even as the amount of incoming communication has grown exponentially. And the report does note that congressional offices are growing increasingly skeptical as to how much of the unsolicited advice actually represents heartfelt concern from constituents, given how cheaply it can be generated. In the last few years, a growing number of congressional offices have even taken steps to create extra hurdles to being contacted via the Internet.

But Bell is quick to highlight the finding that 91 percent of respondents say they contacted Congress because they "care deeply about an issue," a figure she hopes will dispel some of the concern about this just being an explosion of ersatz e-pinions, "These are not just sheep doing something because somebody sent them an e-mail," she said.

From the perspectives of the citizens, the alleged contempt with which congressional offices view constituent opinion appears to be no secret. More than 3 in 5 respondents (62 percent) who contacted Congress said they didn't think that their senators and representatives were interested in what they had to say.

Part of this may be because members of Congress are not doing a particularly attentive job of responding.

Only 63 percent of respondents who contacted their members said they could remember getting a reply. Of those, only 47 percent said they were satisfied with it. Overall, only 30 percent of respondents who contacted Congress received a satisfactory response. The top two reasons for being dissatisfied? "Did not address concerns" (64 percent) and "Too politically biased" (51 percent).

But amid what she calls "mutual skepticism," Bell sees an opportunity. Citizens who are contacting Congress are actually very eager to learn more about what is going on in Washington (74 percent said they want to know more about their members' views and activities). And congressional offices could tap into that interest with a little bit of effort — putting more information about members' positions online, making more creative use of e-mail as a way of keeping constituents informed and also engaging active citizens more directly.

Unfortunately, CMF's 2007 "Golden Mouse" report rated 42 percent of Congressional Web sites as either substandard (23 percent received a grade of "D") or outright failing (19 percent received a grade of "F"). This suggests that a lot of congressional offices are missing out on an easy way to fill what appears to be a real demand for information about Washington.

But Congress' slowness to modernize is no surprise to Thomas T. Holyoke, a professor of political science at California State University, Fresno who also consulted on the report. "Capitol Hill has always had a reluctance to make changes in the way things are done," Holyoke said. "You've got members who have been there a while, and they feel like they've hit on magical formula to ensure electoral success, Capitol Hill didn't even really computerize until the mid-90s."

Another key finding is the crucial role that interest groups are playing in facilitating this communication. According to the report, 82 percent of those who contacted Capitol Hill did so at the request of a third-party group.

"The American public is looking to third parties for information and also to be alerted," Bell said. "They want them to be a first line of defense to let them know when something's coming up. Advocacy groups have moved into a very important niche in the democratic process."

But this makes Holyoke a little uneasy. He worries that interest groups make it "almost too easy perhaps" to participate — but only for those citizens who happen to share the opinions of the most well-organized groups. "You're emphasizing only one part of a member's constituency," he said. "What a member hears is a distorted sense of opinion in the district."

Despite the concerns, Bell said that the increased participation is generally a good thing, and that "overall, it's a positive report, and there are positive messages to take away." But she added that both citizens and congressional offices need to stop being so skeptical about each other's intentions. "Each side needs to give each other the benefit of the doubt," she said "There needs to be a change of mind-set that no tool can overcome."

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